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Swift Thoughts [MultiFormat]
eBook by George Zebrowski

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: This collection of stories showcases the work of George Zebrowski, one of science fiction's masters and a writer Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robert J. Sawyer has called "one of the most philosophically astute writers in science fiction." Like the writers Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanislaw Lem, Zebrowski explores the "big questions"--the expansion of human horizons, and the growth of power over our lives and the world in which we live. In the title story, scientists push the boundaries of human mentality to keep pace with ever-evolving AIs. In "The Eichmann Variations," a finalist for the Nebula Award, exact copies of captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann stand trial for his crimes against humanity, while in "The Word Sweep," all speech must be rationed because spoken words take on physical form. In "Wound the Wind," another Nebula Award finalist, unchanged humans roam freely until captured by those who know what's best for them, and in "Stooges," a visiting alien hijacks the persona of Curly Howard. From hard science fiction ("Gödel's Doom") to alternate history ("Lenin in Odessa") to first alien contact ("Bridge of Silence"), and with an introduction by renowned physicist/writer Gregory Benford, this collection presents one of the most distinctive voices writing in the field of science fiction today.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2012




Swift Thoughts

i

I'll tell you what happened to me when I was only twenty-five years old, even though I don't know who you are, or if anyone will ever care what became of me. Today, as I record my words, I am one hundred and twenty-five, and the cells of my body continue to divide and renew themselves, and I think of the humanity that has superseded me and is gone into the sky. They left me myself, but my brain will be filled long before I am three centuries old--and then I will long for forgetfulness, so that I might once again know something new. That will mean praying for a kind of death, the oblivion that punctuated the continuities of sexual reproduction, through which the newborn came into the world without memory, embedded in the programs of their bodies, and spent half their short lives climbing onto the plateau from which they might exercise a minimal understanding, to no great purpose in the end. I will have no choice but to go down to the beginning of that path and start upward again, if I can forget.

I want it known that I rejected the life that was offered me and embraced the wilderness of the surviving few who live according to what it was once given for us to be. I was given more and then used as a steppingstone by those who were on their way to elsewhere. I am today not one of the old ones or the new, which has enabled me to see more clearly the event horizons between them, I like to think. If this is not so, then I am deluding myself, and my words will only reveal a relic waiting to become dust. I pray that this is not so, and that I have understood what has happened to me.

Even in my early twenties I had been greedy to know, struggling to imagine the universe without its clothes of phenomena, as it is behind what my given selective eyes made of the trembling waves, underneath what my touch could feel. But to do that, I realized that I would need a better mind and the energy of a sun to tear back the veils.

And then one day, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, physics came to an end. The boundary conditions of the universe were expressed in three short equations, and then in one, and it was all the same from the very small to the very large. It was the Artificial Intelligences, our intellectual children, who completed physics and threw the human mind into crisis. No new fundamental discoveries would ever be possible again; all that remained was to trace out details and seek clever applications. The promised land had been discovered, and that could only be done once; now it belonged to the settlers and tourists. The only road left open to us was to continue evolving with the AIs, to hold them close in a deep embrace or be left behind as a remnant of intelligent life powerless to shape its future.

"What's wrong with you?" the young woman who loved me asked in the November of my twenty-second year, in Rome, on a terrace overlooking the Tiber. Her question suddenly seemed heartbreaking, because she lived so completely in the realm of the given, of day to day concerns far removed from mathematics and instrumentalities. She was even proud of it, calling herself a "people person," free of the need to change the world with thought and technologies, rejoicing in the vague, intimate concerns that passed between human beings as they ate, laughed, made love, and filled their lungs with air.

"Nothing's wrong with me," I said, appalled at the ineffectualness of my own humanity. The afternoon Mediterranean sun was orange-bright in a blue sky, promising a classical Greek clarity of thought. "I'm only thinking. It's the hardest thing for a human being to do at all, and infinitely hard to do well." Most human minds, I had realized very early in my life, ran like the polluted river below me, trapping little of insight or knowledge before it was swept into the sea.

"Do you want something to drink?"

"No," I said, working myself up to tell her.

"You want to tell me something," she said, and to her the fact that there was something I was holding back was more important than its content. Another "people thing," this lack of interest in merit, only in that something passed between people and might affect one's feelings and self-interest, or simply divert one for a moment. I felt naked and alone. "Well, what is it?" she asked.

There was no way to tell her, so I smiled and said, "It's nothing," accepting that it would be more merciful simply to leave her, because people did that all the time, and she would fill in her own explanation for why I had abandoned her anyway.

She reached out across the table and touched my hand with her thin, graceful fingers. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I'm fine, just fine," I said, knowing that there was no way to tell her that it was all over, that humanity was facing a dead end, that the climb was over unless we decided to flee from ourselves. And she would know at once that this meant fleeing from her, from the laborious accretions of expectations given us by nature to fulfill.

ii

Perhaps this time, I told myself, I have brought back one of the great prizes that masquerade as mysteries before mere human intelligence.

I was climbing out of a week-long hole of depression, fearful that my next foray into the light-state would unbalance me permanently. It was getting harder to regain the usual human state, which I could no longer help seeing as one of despairing slowness, because the lucid quickness of somatic enhancement taught me only contempt for the niche of normality--adaptive evolution's bias setting, which enabled the human organism to survive in a changing environment, averaging responses to extremes. It was a state of dull insight and haphazard analysis; but then it did not have to be more. The few peak flashes of creativity, recorded, compared and set beside others, and applied, had been enough to give the organism superiority over its environment, through mere survival and material surplus. The rest of the time it spent fulfilling its set appetites for physical pleasure, including the epiphenomenal ones sublimated from biological programs--foremost among them being the thirst for power over one's fellow creatures, which included dominating the future through one's children, as well as the trivial variants of sexual pleasure and food. It was becoming increasingly harder for me to see this kind of existence as anything but barren. Sexual pleasure as a spur to reproduction was especially demeaning. We could not be trusted to survive on our own.

But I could only attain these insights in the light-state. With the fallback into common humanity, I would still sometimes forget my standard of comparison, and a great sense of relief would flood into me. Here again was the fellowship of the beast that breathed and hungered, the creature that liked to hang out with its kind, who put its claw into the future through progeny; the animal for whom food, shelter, and a mate were enough.

"How do you feel?"

I looked down to the foot of the bed and saw a vaguely familiar man gazing at me across the continent of my body. He stood far beyond the forest of my chest and the fleshly plain of my belly, between the peaks of my feet. His face was smooth and unlined, his hair white and skimpy fine, his eyes brown and sympathetic. He moistened his lips with his tongue and waited for my answer.

"It's Krim, isn't it?" I asked.

He nodded. "You're recovering more quickly today."

I remembered nothing but the name, and would have said it to anyone.

Suddenly, I began to remember who I was and why I was here.

Krim had recruited me just out of school, lifting me out of a deep sense of disappointment with my kind and with myself. "You could be one of the saviors of humanity," he had told me. "The Artificial Intelligences are designing themselves ever faster. Soon we will be faced with living as a lesser species, dependent on their gifts to us. They still don't show too much interest in us, in a competitive sense, so we can still ask them to solve problems for us. Still, we must raise human intelligence, enhance and redesign it for greater capabilities. The AIs have given us the drugs, and the start that will enable us to keep up with them. It's the only way we can go--as they advance, so must we keep pace with them."

Each month Krim had sent me out into the extremes of mental capacity from which I regularly fell back into deep depression and stupidity. Much of the time I could not remember who I had been. Echoes of a superb cross-referencing system remained with me after each milking, playing back the smallest thoughts at random.

The only trouble was that back in the normal human state, my thoughts again became linked to my feelings and sympathies, which served as a perverse librarian. "Beware the pursuit of the superhuman!" Shaw had cried out from one of his dramas. "It leads to contempt and misuse of the merely human." And he had answered himself with, "Superman is a good cry--and a good cry is half the battle!"

I pitied the leopard in Hemingway's story, dry and frozen near the summit of Kilimanjaro, because he had tried to be more than a leopard. Something had opened in his predator's mad brain, lifting him into a transcendent state bordering on the merely human, and he had seen his life whole, as if from a great height. The mountain had excited his imagination--to go upward might lead him out of his world of plains, rivers, and forests, to a place where he might find the meaning of the new suspicions which had awakened in him. Poor Hemingway had never climbed out of his own story.

That's how we thought once, those of us who had been born in the twentieth century. We looked to stories and parables, to plays, films, and poems as a mirror-universe in which we might better see ourselves. Literature, in all its expanding forms, was the very heart of our culture, where we might share disappointments and sorrows, judge and reverse all wrongs, celebrate joys, even take revenge, and express hopes for the future. And this too, remember, is a story I'm trying to put before you, a self-justification that will help me escape the torment of what was once called "narrative dysfunction," the inability to piece together a story about one's life, as if connectedness was some kind of salvation.

Like that leopard, I had come to the end of myself when I saw how unreasoningly people reach out to the life of their bodies. There was rarely even a hint among most people of rebellion against this yoke of physical form, of mind adapted to the niches of practicality, of vanity expressed through offspring grasping and passing forward the genetic relay race baton. One felt impelled to do the opposite of everything out of a sense of intellectual pride and independence: act homosexual if you're heterosexual; or better, live alone; place thought above feeling with a deliberate willfulness. Dream instead of live.

The trouble with being more than a leopard, in all past attempts, was that it could not be done very well. The cat on Kilimanjaro became, at best, a dim-witted human being feeling a poetic ache for the sky, a beast that could not climb out of its skin.

Doctor Krim had invaded super-thinking space, using leopards--unenhanced human beings. Later, he learned enough to design better leopards; and one day he would make beings who wouldn't be leopards at all, but something better than human beings--superior even to the inexorably evolving AIs.

I might not be one of these; neither would Doctor Krim, most likely. But in the beginning I tried not to worry about what would happen to me; even though he had told me I was his best leopard, I began to fear that I would not do well enough to go on and become part of whatever success lay ahead. There would not come a day when I would leave the project as a finished piece of work and have a life of my own. I would be a prisoner here until I died, a used up practice organism.

I knew that I had to ask Doctor Krim the hard questions that had collected in me like abrasive stones. "What will become of me?" I asked. "What can I look forward to? I have to know the worst. Please."

He had taken a chair and was sitting by my bedside, watching me. "Are you clearheaded enough to talk?" he asked, licking his lips.

"I'll try," I said, and he sat back more comfortably in his chair.

"You're worried about what will happen to you."

"Yes," I said.

"That's a constant, every time you return to us. Sometimes, it's all you talk about for days."

"Are you getting anything useful from me?"

He nodded. "We're learning more every day, and not only by pouring select databases through enhanced human brains and getting new displays of specific relationships between facts and theories. There's no doubt anymore that we will be able to redesign the human mind completely, not only for data storage capacity but for subtle operations."

"Subtle operations?" I asked.

"Yes--inspired guessing, leaps from immense databases governed by unconscious aesthetic motives."

As I looked into his eyes, I realized with resignation that like the leopard I would also perish at a great height, but it would not be great enough. How could I be poured into a new shape and still be myself? Something would emerge, and might even remember having been me, but it would not be me.

"We're running out of time," Krim said. "Stop me if you remember this, but I have to tell you many things more than once. There's no time to wait for you to regain yourself completely. We can't simply settle for data feedback with the AIs. We must redesign ourselves as quickly as they do, constantly, and that will mean an endless embrace, with so many changes being handed back and forth that the line between human derivations and AI development will disappear. The emergent will be one culture, not a symbiosis, no either-or."

"What will be lost?" I asked, dimly remembering having asked this before.

"Everything--and nothing. Perhaps what I mean is that what we lose doesn't have much value when measured against the gains. The loss will be of a certain character, valuable only in a species-system where every member is a setting of that character. When none are left, who will care?"

"Can't we keep something ... of ourselves?" I asked, remembering Vera's thin, probing fingers seeking a way into my heart.

"Perhaps, but I haven't been able to see what that might be. So much of old human value depends on having a previous context to exercise that value--but when all value becomes fluid before applied knowledge, and choice of environments becomes nearly absolute, the past dies. What can we go back to after unleashing the unbiased evolution of AIs? If we don't grow along with them, we'll be given a place, like a well-trained dog. Maybe not even that. No, we not only have to keep pace with the AIs, we'll have to become them."

"But who will we be?"

"Not anything we can grasp now. We naturally resist the dissolution of human character, but that's only nature's self-preserving reluctance built into us, a defense that we ourselves did not choose. We fear our abolition as we fear death, but we should not."

"But what can we become, how will we live? What will there be?"

He smiled. "Good questions. For one thing, there will be no elites caring for the lesser. Super-mentality will mean fast scans of databases, virtual cross-referencing of insights, visualization of mechanical and theoretical concepts, and routine mathematical intuition, by which all relationships would be plainly quantified. Argumentative error, for one thing, will exist at a minimum, reserved only for the most difficult and far-reaching questions. No one will ever beat a dead horse again."

"But to become ... this," I said, "is irreversible. Will anyone be left who does not choose to join the ... the embrace?"

Krim sighed. "You've asked this before, and you've worked your way past it, as you will do countless times more, making a further gain at the end of each recapitulation. You're still growing."

"How many others like me are there?"

"Thousands," he said, and I remembered something like a vast honeycomb, an abyss of cells containing other climbers like myself.

"Who am I? Who was I?"

"You are my biological son," Krim said.

I did not know him. "Will I ever remember you?"

"No, you will not. That part of your origin is no longer in you, as you become ... more. There is no need for you to dwell on your origin, as you'll see when you regain more of your growing self."

"But I seem to have a need," I said, trembling before the threat of quicksilver revelations.

"Be patient. There will come a day when you won't return to the discomfort that you now feel."

"How soon?"

"Very soon. You did a lot of good work this last week."

Unease was a maelstrom at the edges of my awareness, threatening me with nausea and vertigo. My human state was one of amnesia, a narrow angle of awareness to which Doctor Krim spoke when it appeared. At other times he spoke to something else, my greater self, which sometimes still awoke as a lesser self. It was a defect, one that Krim was trying to remove. The lesser self had somehow learned this, and feared its own extinction.

"We won't simply let parts of you ... die," Krim was saying, telling me more of what I seemed to be remembering. "All your regions must be assimilated as gradually as possible, so that your future self will not be conflicted at even the most rudimentary level."

"What did I bring back this last week?" I asked.

"You can't understand right now. It will come to you."

"Perhaps..." I struggled to say, "perhaps we should stay as we are."

"And not climb?" Krim asked. "Too late for that. There are too many like you, too much dependence on AIs for us to go back to nature, hat in hand. If we are to be anything, if something true and beautiful is to remain of our humanity, it must contend with the evolution of the AIs, contribute to it, perhaps become dominant in the process."

"But we might completely disappear into the process of design and redesign!"

He smiled and said, "There will be no one left to know it."

"But what will there be for us if we fail?" I asked, feeling the implications flooding back into me. The leopard was too high up in the cold, baffled by his lack of breath, fighting the stiffness in his muscles.

"I'm telling you as much as I'm telling myself," Krim said. "Yes, we may fail. You and I will almost certainly not enter the promised land, because there is no promised land, only endless growth, design and redesign, with no niche-identity of the sort given to us by nature. That human nature is a system of self-reference, best revealed in the old literatures, where the only constant is resisting change, bending but never breaking."

"But we won't be anything!" I cried out.

"Exactly," Krim said. "In an endless development, we will be lost. There will be only a neutral cast of mind. That is the only identity we will have. Identity will have a new meaning. Culture-bound man will be liberated from a nature whose only goal was serial survival of the genotype, leaving only a limited net time for genuine progress. Every individual will carry within himself the collective memory of the species. Nothing will ever be forgotten. In a sense, what you still are today will survive as part of this vast memory, over which swift thought will rule, forever adding to it."

"Why are you telling me all this!" I shouted. "If you and I will never be part of it, then why?"

Krim smiled. "So that you will understand something of what has happened to you. The same goes for me." I looked for pity in his eyes but saw none. He would never reach out to me.

"Am I going to die?" I asked. "You're going to dispose of all the learning subjects, aren't you? And you want my forgiveness, is that it?"

"Something like that."

"How much time is left to me?"

"One or two more journeys into the light-state."

"How will it happen?"

"You'll never know it when it comes."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll simply never come out of the light-state."

"But why tell me!" I cried again. "To torment me?"

"I can't tell you now. You wouldn't understand. You couldn't know how it will be."

"You talk as if I were going to live!"

He smiled at me, as if we were sharing a secret, and I slipped away on his reassurance.


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